Is it a crime to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family? Well, yes, it is. No matter how desperately hungry you and your family might be that loaf of bread needs to be paid for (either by you or someone else). Otherwise, you’re shoplifting or, as it is known in legal circles, committing the bona fide criminal act of larceny. We lawyers like using fancy words like ‘larceny’ and ‘bona fide’ to make up for our lack of personality. It makes us feel tough. Roar.

You commit larceny – sorry, you shoplift – if you take something that does not belong to you from a store without the permission of the store’s owner. That seems pretty black and white. However, there is a surprising amount of greyness in what a store must do to prove that you actually shoplifted. With that in mind, it is time to take a look at the legal methods a store can use to detect whether you have shoplifted, and what you should do if you are accused of shoplifting.

Let’s kick things off by talking about bag checking policies, which most stores use these days to discourage people from stealing shit.

A big sign at the front of a store saying its staff are allowed to search your bag upon entry or exit does not give the store’s employees the legal right to open your bag and start rummaging around in it. The employee can request that you present your bag for inspection while in the store, but if you refuse to do so there is nothing the store can do to force you.

Also, if a store does not have a clear sign in a highly visible location in the store’s entry saying that it is store policy to request bag inspections, no employee in the store can legally ask you to present your bags at all.

A store also has a legal right to ask you to leave the store immediately, and to deny you future entry, if it thinks that, for some reason, you have stolen goods from them, or if you refuse to open your bag so the store’s owner or workers can inspect it. However, the store can get into serious trouble if it refuses to serve you for discriminatory reasons, such as asking everyone of a particular race or gender to leave the store because it has the view that ‘those type of people steal all the time.’

A store does have a legal right to use security cameras, and employ security guards to patrol the store (although those security guards cannot carry guns or tackle people to the ground, and they are not allowed to randomly search your bag, either – they just get to look mean and tough). But again, the store needs to notify you that it uses cameras and security guards, usually by way of a sign at the front of the store.

Finally, if the store’s owner or employees really think you have shoplifted something, the only thing they can legally do is call the police. A store employee could attempt to place you under a ‘citizen’s arrest’ but as we will see in another section of this book the power to make a citizen’s arrest is very limited, and realistically most employees do not care enough about their job to take on the risk of something nasty happening if they attempt a citizen’s arrest.

Now, if you are accused of shoplifting, there are some ways you can legally, quickly, and easily get out of trouble and (ideally) receive a grovelling apology from the store. However, these are all more in the nature of common sense, rather than some strange legal loophole you can use to your advantage.

You cannot be charged with shoplifting if:

⁃ You did not take anything from the store. Um, yeah pretty obvious one.

⁃ You made an honest mistake in taking the goods. For example, someone you are shopping with might hand you something from the store and tell you they just paid for it, when in reality they are just getting you to steal something without you knowing.

⁃ You did not intend to deprive the store of the good. You cannot be arrested for shoplifting simply by carrying a good around the store before you pay for it.

⁃ Due to mental illness you were not aware or able to understand that shoplifting is a crime. No jokes here, as this would be a tough situation for all involved.

⁃ Someone is forcing you to shoplift, or the circumstances of that particular moment require you to shoplift. For example, it might be a medical emergency and you need to grab bandages from a nearby pharmacy, or someone might be threatening you with physical violence unless you steal something from a store from them. In both of these cases, you would have a legal excuse for shoplifting, so long as you do not go beyond what is required to deal with the situation.

I appreciate that shoplifting is a major problem for retail stores, but there is not much they can do from a legal perspective to stop it from happening other than call the police and hope that the person accused of shoplifting waits around for the police to arrive and investigate the matter formally. If you are accused of shoplifting, stay calm. Politely explain your actions and, if the store continues to make a fuss about things, wait for the police to arrive and speak to them. Ultimately, they are the only ones who can charge you with larceny (what a word!). Store owners and employees, and any store security guards, can’t really do shit to you from a legal perspective without getting into serious trouble themselves. But if you try and run away or start getting aggressive towards people in the store you will almost certainly make things worse for yourself.

And if you are falsely accused, never shop in that store again. That’ll teach them.